What happened to ELT video?

We used this postcard as our “business card” for years. The basic photo was taken by me with a disposable camera on a sand island near St. Petersburg, Florida. The video boxes were inserted with Photoshop by Daniel Viney. We never realized how true the picture would become!

I started using video with open reel tape in the early 1970s, so this is not cutting edge technology. I’ve co-written thirteen video courses in the last twenty years, plus an eighty-episode video self-study program, My Oxford English for OUP Spain.  During those twenty years I’ve told audiences that in the near future, video would be such a normal, everyday part of English teaching that we wouldn’t imagine teaching without it. Well, the future’s here, and where’s ELT video? By “video” I mean short filmed pieces for teaching English, regardless of whether those films are stored on VHS tape (or Betamax!), DVD, hard disk or downloaded from YouTube.

Why should video be an essential tool? The audio CD (or tape) is a specialist tool, and is actually a bit silly. How many people spend time listening to talk radio discussions and dramas (apart from course book authors)? The realistic uses of audio are for telephone work, songs, self-access audio “drilling” exercises, specialist listening exercises and specialist pronunciation work. It’s a dumb medium for presenting situations, showing discussions, or imparting factual information. Even that old listening for specific information chestnut, the airport announcement, has largely been rendered redundant because computer screens have replaced audio announcements.

We get a student struggling in a foreign language, so what do we do? By using audio as the major and preferred source of pre-recorded input, we blindfold him or her, and restrict their information flow to ears only.

Let’s ignore the extreme Luddite teacher (“Teaching aids? Bunkum! Give me a pointed stick and a flat piece of sand, that’s all the visual aids you’ll ever need. Chalk and blackboards? Luxury!). There are people who still view the humble cassette-player or CD player as the march of merciless machines into the human world of language teaching.

There are still some who say, ‘Audios? Never use them. They get much more of a laugh out of me acting it all out.

However, most teachers recognize the value of exposing their students to a wider world of English than just the teacher’s face, voice and desire to be centre-stage. There is no doubt in my mind that this wider world should embrace visuals as well as sound.

Almost any work is enhanced by video. A short list:

–  Presentational material, fiction or factual

–  Factual information

–  Cultural background

–  Dramatic acting out

–  Pronunciation work with close ups on faces

–  Communication skills (with emphasis on non-verbal communication)

–  Picture only material for presentation or discussion

–  Songs with visuals / mouth movements

–  News and current affairs (preferably recorded within the last 24 hours)

–  Sports material- great if you take the soundtrack off a race and get students to predict and bet on the result

–  Longer material for extensive viewing

–  Unstructured real material for extensive viewing

–  Film versions of literature

–  Camera work filming students doing pair work, role plays, monologues, discussion

– Student-made films and projects

– Teacher-training, with the focus on performing micro skills like eye contact, question technique, gesture.

Some of it you get from publishers. Some of it you record off air. Some of it is authentic DVDs or video. Some of it you film in class. Some your students film.

You can now find video material to fit every taste or method. So why aren’t more teachers using video on a daily basis?  Is it the hassle of lugging a trolley to the classroom? Is it having to pre-book-equipment? Is it having to rely on technicians? None of this should be true nowadays with interactive whitboards and laptops connected to projectors. Are schools too mean to invest in the hardware and software? I admit that video is a problem for a teacher travelling around between companies or private students, but  you can get around that with a laptop and a DVD.

The pre-requisite is a TV screen and a readily-accessible video, DVD player in every classroom, or the facility to link in a laptop. (See technical note below). I’ll never do it, but if ever I opened a language school, there would be video in every room. I’d use it in 50% or more of lessons. Sometimes it would be a whole lesson. Most often it would be a ten minute phase. In a perfect world, with lots of money, I’d have a fixed digital camera that could be used at any time to record a role-play or other activity. This does not need state-of-the-art hardware either. Unless you’re an accomplished camera operator, a fixed camera is the best option, the wide shot being far less disconcerting than amateur camera work. Nowadays a Flip Cam Ultra HD camera for £150 gives you instant video at the touch of one big red button (2010 note).

Years ago, we were working on material (Grapevine) where every fifth lesson could be replaced by a parallel video lesson. At the time, I said ‘Next time we do a major course, there’ll be one or two-minute videos for every lesson’. That would have been ideal, as video wouldn’t take over a lesson, but be a segment. We haven’t done it because purely and simply there wasn’t the market to make it viable.

So, why isn’t video the universal classroom tool now? Is it the awkwardness of using it? Are schools too mean to invest?

Is it price?  Companies think nothing of upgrading computer software yearly. I have boxes of old versions of Word and Photoshop. I paid nearly £100 to upgrade Macintosh System 10.2 to system 10.3. But as soon as video is mentioned, they say ‘I can buy Pirates of the Carribbean for $20. Why should I pay $200 for a video course?’ The answer is that one sells in hundreds or if very successful indeed, thousands. The other sells in millions and has already recouped all its production costs on theatrical release. Teachers might complain about the high cost of ELT video, but most ELT videos are lucky to break even on their production costs. Videos are largely seen as “loss leaders” by some publishers designed to support main courses rather than as projects in their own right. And some publishers have been selling off very cheaply made (or bought-in) videos at unrealistic prices, thus undermining the price of quality videos, and also putting people off video by palming teachers off with poor quality material.

I wonder if it’s that video takes lessons in a certain direction and therefore eats up too much time? Is it regarded as a passive medium? It shouldn’t be, as video should be something students work with in an active way with the full range of paired, grouped, individual and class-centred activities. Video used properly is NOT a passive viewing experience and needn’t control the shape of the lesson.

I even wonder if it’s the sort of misguided video talk at conferences (How I used the Extended Version of Lord of The Rings with my Pre-Intermediate Tourism class with examples of the worksheets I used over the full three years it took). This has been aggravated by the strange decision of IATEFL to combine their video special interest group with their literature special interest group. Any idea that the two are related betrays a deeply-misguided view of video. There has been far too much emphasis on using full-length authentic material at the expense of tailor-made ELT material. I see video as an addition to the teaching repertoire, not an end in itself. If students want to labour through a three hour film, it may be useful, but they can do it in their own time.

The cost of a purpose-made ELT video per student per minute is still very low, comparable with photocopying costs in many cases. In the end, it can’t be lack of material anymore, though my dream of having 40 or 50 one or two-minute segments to accompany a course has not been achieved, and I can’t see it happening in the present climate. But I detect a general lack of enthusiasm connected to video nowadays that is depressing.

I can’t imagine teaching by blindfolding the students any more than I can imagine teaching with the whole class wearing earplugs.


In 2009, ten of our thirteen video courses were put out of print. We were told by the new editor that “teachers want real world video, not fiction.” Since then we continually answer How can I get hold of …? questions.

That’s extremely sad. Hang on to the videos and DVDs you’ve got. They’ll work better than swiftly downloaded news bulletins.

TECHNICAL NOTE: old videos and DVD

One second of video has 25 frames or pictures in the PAL system (UK, Germany) or 30 frames in the older NTSC system (Japan, North America). Realistically, PAL has more accuracy for copies of feature films, because movies are filmed at 24 frames a second. PAL generally plays them one twenty-fifth faster, which you won’t notice. NTSC has to “double” random frames to get the number to thirty, which makes it jerkier.

Strangely, DVD isn’t as good as video for a lot of activities, because it’s harder to freeze on a single frame. DVD works by compression. It only records the changes between one frame and another and composes them into a picture. Without a lot of fiddling around it’s hard to get within 5 or 6 frames of where you’re going. When you’re working with facial expressions, you really need to get the precise frame quickly. We discovered this while writing the ELT version of A Grand Day Out. We obtained the DVD with subtitles and started work. To replace the existing dialogue with simplified dialogue requires careful attention to mouth movements, and by the second day of writing, we’d returned to the old-fashioned video.

Hard disc is a whole different ballgame, but again compression causes issues.

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